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Saturday, December 31, 2011

In With the New

I love the clutter that comes with Christmas.  The new toys, errant bows, ornaments hung from doorknobs and cherished members of the Nativity scene that seem wander off and befriend LEGO minifigs.  I love decor where there is normally none and nothing brightens a room like a fresh Christmas tree.  I love that all up to a point.

Today we went merrily sailing way, way passed that point.  Everyone camped out at the table writing thank you notes and the boys worked on their 2 big homework assignments.  One of those projects involved paper mache.  Can you start to see our things, already a little messy because we've been home playing for 2 weeks?  Now lighted coated in a gluey paste?  Including Baby Sister's hair.  Perfectly content, the girls opened a play restaurant in the kitchen.  I think it was called "Chez Benign Neglect" because the entire floor of the kitchen was covered most of our pots and pans and serving utensils.  All at once, it seemed that most every belonging we had was on the floor.  Strewn all over our flat.  It was as if the Christmas tree and every drawer and cabinet had held a contest to see which could make the biggest mess.  It was a tie.  We lost.

Then, racing the clock, we went our separate ways to the skateboard park and to get the all important snacks for a family New Year's Eve party.  I'll leave it to you to guess who went which way.  All around was evidence of our being stricken with acute onset hoarding.  If I am brave enough, I'll add a picture of the mess.  The skaters started out ahead of the shoppers.  Because it was of critical importance, once the flat was cleared of most of the people, I got down to business.  The business of making our January wreath.  Because isn't it critically important to announce our new year's cheer with door decor?! Of course.

It should also be noted that I like order.  I want the waste baskets emptied at least every day. Sometimes more often.  I scrub bathrooms before we leave on a trip and feel best if clean clothes are all tucked away in their drawers then, too.  I worry that someone will even once have to come into my unoccupied house and decide just what makes us all tick by the relative mess we leave in our wake.  Pitiful but ridiculously true.  When the police raid someone's house in the movies, I'm always yelling to the Mister, "SEE?!  This is why you have to make the beds every day!"  So today, it was all I could do not to park Big Sister in front of a library dvd and whirl around making order out of chaos.

But our new wreath was made and London awaited. Big Sister and I knew we'd be back before too long and exhilarated by the afternoon of skateboarding, others would be on hand to bring sense back to our home.  So we left this note.

And what a joy it was to be with Big Sister solo. Made especially dear as we were bustling through our new city in the last hours of the year.  Usually parked in the front seat of the stroller quietly observing, today she busily chatted, skipped and pushed her doll baby in a little stroller on and off buses and along the Marylebone High Street.  We had a sweet afternoon out, enjoying each other and the New Year's Eve excitement. I honestly lost count of how many people talked to Big Sister about her baby.  Our last stop was Waitrose which was only open a few more minutes and very crowded.  A woman passed Big Sister and me and told me how lucky I was to have such a nice helper.  I couldn't have agreed more.

The others had already started cleaning up and ordered the pizza for our party by the time we were home.  After dinner and a movie, we started to undo our Christmas decor.  We're thinking about waking the kids at 5 a.m. to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  Just as long as they promise not to make a mess.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Scoop of mince pie? It's not the wurst.

Some things, like the delightfulness of a new dolly under the Christmas tree are universal.

Others, like mince pie ice cream (which is admittedly delicious!) would be harder to market in the States. Also that a scoop of Philadelphia Cream Cheese is good on pasta. And Marmite (although the jar is graphically perfect and should be displayed next to our Lyle's Black Treacle can for aesthetics alone).

There are countless delicious things about living in Europe.  We've gobbled up endless delectable new (to us) cuisine on Edgeware Road, all over London and in travels to Paris, Bidart, Cologne and the British countryside.  I was never more proud of the kids than when days after we arrived, they enjoyed a plate of Lebanese kibbeh that looked nothing like any meatballs they'd seen before.

All things ending in wurst have been deemed wonderful by my family after a trip to Germany last week.  The Mister and I especially enjoyed wursts in drizzly Christmas markets with a Kolsch or mulled wine in the other hand.  The dairy and cheese counters here alone make me stop my "shopping trolley"* in my tracks.  London is a great restaurant and food city.  But there are some foods we may never become accustomed to seeing or daring enough to try.

It is the straightforwardness of the food that is so fantastically and admirably British.  Maybe this is also why we love British news.  Food here is not doctored by nuanced descriptions or packaging. Tinned meat and lard have their own sections on the grocery online order.  No one here thinks twice about selling "clotted" food.  They clearly don't think it sounds hematological.  You should know that anything clotted is amazing.  The new year will find me working off a fair amount of Marks and Spencer clotted cream champagne rhubarb yogurt sold in "pots." It started innocently enough:  I'm the mom.  I'll try an anthropological experiment for my family.  It became a bit of an addiction.  Clotted can be so very good. Digestives are delightful but wouldn't dare be called that in the US.  Same with streaky bacon.

Enjoy your Christmas celebrations.  We're across the Atlantic toasting you over savory biscuits while we pull apart crackers. Cheers!

*Baby Sister asked for a shopping trolley from Santa.  She considered asking for a buggy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happ eChristmas

I worry that having not sent Christmas cards two years in a row and adding the complication of international postage this year, that we're quickly getting dropped from Christmas card lists.  I hope not.  I love cards. Especially love those with photographs.  At our house, those get saved and packed away to look through when we get out the ornaments.  

I just love mail.  Almost as much as pretty paper and ribbons.  This is why I hope never to receive another evite and why I am going to apply for diplomatic immunity at the Apple store.  The other day I took notes while talking to an Apple employee in the Regent Street store.  With a pen and paper.  (The alternative was I could have walked to one of their computer filled counters (I won't say "bar" - that's just goofy) to book a service appointment.)  I was tempted to explain to him what these charming instruments I was using were.  Next time I'm going to take an inkwell and quill. I used go there and basically announce myself as a little old lady (think Jitterbug phone owner) until I noticed plenty of little old ladies in studious conferences with teams of red shirted people, clearly knowing perfectly well what they were doing there.  Truth be told, I usually know what I am doing in the Apple store.  I've just never quite understood what ALL of those employees and most of the customer-types are doing, busy with various tiny motherboards housed in plastic.  But that's just me.  

Maybe you'll think I'm going green in sending electronic cards or posting a family photo on our blog.  That's a lovely thought and I'm all for the environment, but it is also that I've spent a fair amount of spare change in hurried cab rides up and down George Street to school. But I know you'd agree that it was the right thing to do on many an occasion (and on others you'd have planned better but you won't point that out which is why we're friends!  Hooray, us!).  Some days I try my hardest not to wake Baby Sister from an afternoon nap and then the bus doesn't come in time and I don't want to be on the wrong side of school folk and be late to pick up the school-going smalls.  Worse, there are evenings when it is cold and dark and I've already had to busy 3 smalls for an hour or more while a sibling had an after school club or class.  That's when the kids' belongings seem to have quadrupled just as their ability to carry more than their snack has drastically diminished.  That is usually also the evening Baby Sister insists on being carried and we turn the stroller into a cart, heaping it full of what I'm betting it would take several sherpas to carry to Base Camp. Then it begins to rain.  

So, this is your card this year.  

While I'd like to think it is not true that I spent what I could have on cards on cabs, mostly up and down one street (and will beg comedic artistic license if the Mister is reading this), I think it might be so. This week I watched Baby Sister and Big Sister playing "Moms." And I am not making this up.  They got skirts and shoes on, hoisted purses on their tiny shoulders, put out arms and hips to hail cabs (I tried to tell myself they could have been motioning for a bus...) and then announced they were "going to John Lewis."  Oh.  John Lewis.  In the spirit of Christmas confessions, I'm very sure I also spent a significant portion of monies that could have gone to a lovely card (which I imagine to be photo, cardstock, ribbon, colorful envelopes and international postage) there this year, too.  At least on floors 1-5 and in a few of the cafes but now that the kids are in school, not at all in the restaurant.  Since September.

So please keep documenting your exciting life, photographing your beautiful family, sending us your newsletters, and by all means, keep us on your Christmas card list.  In exchange, I'll gladly direct you to dozens of places around London where you're sure to catch a cab or give you a guided tour of John Lewis.  Baby Sister will help.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Cards

Instead of one ribbon festooned photo card, this year you're likely to get a bunch from us online.

Here are two from Big Brother.  He can march to his own drummer sometimes and be blissfully oblivious to the pressures of time (particularly on mornings when we are hurrying to get to school it seems) but he is also probably our cuddliest of children (which is saying a lot - they are often draped in piles on us) and incredibly sweet and affectionate.  He is also the reason I once slammed a door so hard the glass panes broke.  In my defense, the glass was single paned from 1924 and our handyman said it was only a matter of time.

Big Brother is also a quick wit and is happy for an audience.  I cannot even explain the costume here, 3D glasses without the lenses, my bathrobe and the Sunday paper, but it cracked us all up which meant he kept it on long enough for me to get the shot.  He might still be wandering around the flat in it now and I took this weeks ago.

About those glasses. Biggest Brother got them on a school field trip (to see a movie based on a book they'd read in class.  You know I was glad about that given my usual dislike of kids' flicks.)  Anyway, maybe picking up on timeless nerdy glasses appeal, Biggest Brother started wearing them around without the lenses.  Just the GI-issue, Buddy Holly look only giant, black and lens-less.  If only you could have seen his Head Teacher's face one afternoon when he slipped them out of his backpack and popped them on as we walked away from school.  I'm telling you, it is not possible to be meek when mothering my smalls.  Fortunately, I've had 10 years OJT for this though.  The boys would wear underpants on their heads with their fireman costumes to replicate the stretchy hood firemen wear.  Their little faces peeked out the waistband and their helmets went on top. Think about it.  It really completed the look.
But it is so like Big Brother to make me the Christmas tree card.  In our old house I taped their cards and notes and scribbles on the inside of kitchen cabinet doors as a reminder of their sweetness. The London one thrills me, too.  He probably won't write "Mary Crismis" next year.  That the Big Ben is saying "dong" and that the double decker bus "crsismis" (sort of reads like "crisis-mis" -- probably some shoppers would agree this week!).  And that it is snowing but not enough to cover the city.  His new friends don't believe him about all the snow in our last town.  (I'm fairly sure he did not tell them that he walked miles through it in his bare feet, but can imagine children who've only ever seen a few wet inches think he's full of hooey for telling him about Mom-sized drifts!).  He is eager to see some snow this year here.  I hope one day we live where we play on a beach instead of a playground.

I love what they already know about London and Europe and history and geography.  I might be a bit jealous of their worldliness, too.  Big Brother crafted a spelling sentence last week about Queen Victoria. At 7 and likely even more than a decade later I wasn't conversant about Victorian times.  They all have enviable passport stamps and visits to US landmarks.  I hope they'll keep that up.  And stay in close touch with their London friends who are from all over the world.  Oh, the places they will all go.  As our world gets smaller, I'm so convinced they will be tripping over each other in decades to come.  Maybe while my smalls are travelling together.  We can only hope.

He asked for plane tickets to Chicago for Christmas and his gang of boys from First Grade, too.  Do you know that in our old school the children could come home for lunch?  One of his friend's mothers (also mother of 4) would regularly host a giggly brood of boys mid-day for a lunch party.  Those remain among his favorite memories from our town.  The wistfulness of Christmas makes us unpack those memories.  I hope they're ones he'll always treasure just as I'll always treasure these cards from him.

So Merry Crismis from Big Brother and all of us, too.

Baby Sister says, "Happy Christmas" this year. Where does she pick it all up?  She puts nappies on her dolls and pushes a buggy up the lift!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Guardsmen on Parade

Everything about life in London is delightfully new to us* so it is no surprise that even last minute Christmas errands have been a treat this year. The lights and decorations of Oxford and Regent Streets are spectacular and even our own little square nearby has lights strung throughout. Navigating the crowds on foot while bands play in the streets makes parking garages seem a world away.  A few weekends ago I went out by myself and happened upon streets closed to vehicles and stores practically throwing parties - live music, endless champagne, coffee, mulled wine and trays piled with mince pies to entice shoppers and ensure everyone's blood sugar remained appropriately high. Now that I think about it though, it is a wonder any shopping got done.  It felt more like a street fair. And speaking of those mince pies and mulled wine,  I promise future discourse on what we're eating here (and admittedly a few things we've heard about but not tried, too) this season.  Meanwhile, know that Philadelphia Cream Cheese is heavy in "advert" rotation.  It is true.     

Anyhow, this week Baby Sister and I had reason to be shopping near Buckingham Palace.  We quite literally stumbled upon a Changing of the Guard complete with the arrival of dignitaries in carriages! In their full length grey winter coats and tall, furry hats, the Coldstream Guards never looked more breathtaking (or more like some of the scariest characters in the Wizard of Oz. And here I am not talking about the flying monkeys). Assuming you can stand around for a bit to appreciate it (and I usually can), life in London is always a spectacle.  I so often feel like I'm in a movie.  Here were countless tourists who likely planned this as part of their visit to London and Baby Sister and I just happened upon it on our day's errands.

I was reminded of our summertime adventure near Buckingham Palace.  While touring the Guards Museum, the smalls and I bought a Coldstream Guard hat for our dress up collection.  Brothers wanted to wear it right away and it quickly became obvious that we would make good use of 2 hats.  So we bought another at our next museum stop along with 2 pairs of guardsman pajamas. Big fans of uniforms, Brothers soon had the uniforms on over their clothes and topped with their new hats.  Lines of people waiting for palace tours and queueing for a look through the gates were more than thrilled to see my little guardsmen go trooping by.  Brothers stayed not just in costume, but in character, through the playground at St. James' Park, passing the palace and under Wellington Arch.  Giggly and grateful tourists posed next to them for countless photographs all along the way.  At Hyde Park Corner we happily got tangled up in a pre-Olympic delegation tour of Hyde Park.  Opting for a bus ride instead of continuing to march through the park, we waited on Park Lane.  Here, I thought, the boys might lose their theatrical momentum and be ready to be boys in t-shirts and shorts.  

Not my boys.  They stood at attention and saluted every city bus, tour bus, cab, and police car that drove by until we boarded ours.  The bus drivers were particularly funny in returning their salutes and they were mentioned by more than a few bus tour guides.  Never once did they drop their stoic visages to let on just how much fun they were having.  I, on the other hand, have never laughed so loud for so long.  

Mothering our small people isn't for the meek or shy.  I wouldn't have it any other way. 

*Christmas here is new to us except that we've kept our nearly decade-long tradition of getting and sharing a stomach bug in time for the holidays.  I am embarrassed to admit the 10 year thing is not an exaggeration.  Whole branches of our family must think we lack creativity in coming up with excuses for why we can't visit on Christmas Day.  I do have a fond memory, though of taking Biggest Brother to the movies and ice skating on Christmas while the Mister and well enough smalls went to a gift exchange.  

The Mister reminded me that this time last year after declaring "air, ship, or storage" for every single item we own, watching most of it get loaded onto a shipping container, bidding a tearful goodbye to our beloved house and setting up household in a rental house with rental furniture, we did indeed NOT get a stomach bug. He's right, but I think I was too busy last Christmas to notice.  I certainly forgot to appreciate a year without it. 

Should your family ever be felled by a stomach bug in London, prepare your children for the lack of their recovery favorites because Jello, Gatorade, and saltines are not readily available here.  They may actually be for sale in the American aisle of Selfridges but I am trying not to find out so as not to have to choose between saving for college and soothing little tummies.  But if I get it next, I will promptly send the Mister out to find all of that and more. Meanwhile, we are managing on 7-up, cream crackers and iced lollies.  

Maybe if I wasn't so addled by dual roles of Christmas elf and nursemaid I could figure out what happened with this entry's spacing.  Meanwhile, we're sending you well (yes, pun fully intended) wishes for Christmas.  This is NOT your card - yet - but don't go watching your mailbox for it.  I dashed a few packages in the mail in between patients last week but that's all that made it out so far and even they were late. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Day In A Manger

I've been longing to shine the spotlight on Big Brother especially since his tummy problem on a bus and dazed stare in the airplane photo are so far his only mentions here.  I felt sure today was his day when I had the opportunity to chaperone his class field trip to our cathedral where he would be a shepherd in the nativity play.  This, I thought, is Big Brother's great blog debut.  Here is where he'll burst onto the scene with Yuletide fanfare.  He was wonderful, made me proud, and seemed to love every moment.  Gone apparently is my shy little boy who wouldn't have wanted this big role.  Gone, too is the rambunctious toddler who kept running out of the church while our preschool director honored Biggest Brother by casting him in the coveted role of nativity sheep circa 2005.

Big Brother (and his sweet 5 other shepherd friends) were asked by the man playing Joseph to RUN down the cathedral aisle as part of an exciting telling of the Christmas story.  What could be better than running in church in front of hundreds of people?

Well, what if I told you there would be a live donkey in the nativity scene who would walk all the way up the aisle, take part in the play and walk back while we sang a carol dedicated to him?  Even better, right? A real live donkey I say!

What if I told you what that donkey did at the back of the cathedral before the shepherds were cued to sprint toward Mary and Joseph?

Unbeknownst to me what was happening, at that moment I heard said donkey make a VERY loud donkey noise (You are thinking the word is "braying" but I promise you that would be way too gentile a description) and noticed a shepherd holding her nose and looking horrified. Honestly, I thought they were playing a VERY loud donkey noise on the PA system for effect and thought it was a bit much. Apparently not.

So if you are a 7 year old boy and you have a starring role in a nativity play, get to RUN down a cathedral aisle, and take 2 of your beloved London buses with 29 of your best pals on a great field trip, the biggest takeaway from the day will be that a donkey pooped "IN CHURCH!"  You will reenact it for your giggly siblings all evening.  Your hopelessly immature mother will laugh the loudest.

I have to say here that I hold a very firm line against potty talk outside our house which is sometimes why we nearly fall down laughing when Baby Sister, newly educated in how everything works, makes anatomical announcements on buses.  Our children haven't seen many kids movies because I reject the crude humor. But make no mistake, this is a line I draw with my very own grey fat fuzzy pen.

Despite nearly ten years OJT, I am still not nearly mature enough for my job.  Don't even get me started on the day the boys talked the ENTIRE way home about their research projects on Uranus.  (I can assure you that they are neither wise nor naughty enough to know what I was thinking nor are they clever enough to cover it up if they were.)  That walk was excruciating.  They endlessly debated how big Uranus is, what Uranus looks like, whether there are rings around Uranus, and whether Uranus got bumped and is now always on its side.  I had to maintain a straight face and appear on the edge of my seat with interest (and not about to dissolve into giggles) over the latest yer anus nuance.  It can be so tough my job.  No one knows the tribulations...

Anyhow, back to the donkey.  Despite hearing some of what was happening from the pews (oh, gracious! I swear I did not mean to make that pun), it was made all the sillier by Big Brother's retelling at home.  I don't know who laughed harder.  Tears running down my face asking him to "tell it again.  Please.  Just once more!"

Rest assured that I mean this as no sacrilege. And I'm not just saying that because I filled out Baby Sister's Nursery application today and dropped it off for our priest's approval, or because Big Brother is preparing to make his First Holy Communion.  Hopefully God knows that we are enjoying many happy and wholesome preparations for Christmas.  I also believe God made little boys to be delightfully simple and silly, and in their best moments, God helps mothers be just as simple.  God made those Christmas donkeys, too.

And I'd be willing to bet that even Mary would have laughed at whatever tickled Jesus.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Four Minutes to Festive

Before you go thinking that one of the Hyde Park swans came across the street and exploded on our front door, let me assure you that in fact we are starting to decorate the flat for Christmas.  This is my "Four Minutes to Festive" feather Christmas wreath.  It is a little whimsical decor that gets us in the spirit and most importantly, was able to be completed between Big Sister's Christmas assembly* and picking everyone up from school.

This confection can adorn your door in just a few easy steps:

STEP One:  Gather supplies.  Many of these are likely to be ones you already have on hand.  Well, except two white feather boas.  And if you do happen have those on hand...discuss.  But I suppose you could innocently have a few lurking in a dress up bin.  In which case, Christmas decorating is a fully authorized reason to steal (really just borrow...unless you want to keep it up for Valentine's and just swap out the tartan ribbon) from small girls.  Especially if they are your offspring.  Anyway.  You need two white feather boas, ribbon, baubles and a wreath form.  In my case, still navigating life in London, I used a 12" embroidery hoop from John Lewis but a white styrofoam wreath form would be best.  I bought the boas there too.  For £16 each.  The Mister suggested months ago never to think about the dollars to pound conversion, but I just know Hobby Lobby, Michaels, or JoAnn undoubtedly have them much cheaper. I also bought clear thread to secure the boas to the hoop but didn't end up using it.  I love that this is a simple project and if you manage to do it without buying £32 worth of boas, it is inexpensive, too!

STEP Two:  Wrap boas around wreath form.  If you use a styrofoam wreath, it would be good to secure them with several floral (big pearl end) pins.

STEP Three:  Pick up dozens of pieces of a broken ornament Baby Sister has tossed across living room while "playing ball with the pretties!"

STEP Four:  Add bow and embellishments.  The possibilities here are limited only by your ribbon collection.  A lime green bow with a few pink touches would be very pretty.

STEP Five:  Wait in eager anticipation for Royal Mail carrier to notice the new wreath!

*Big Sister sang a solo.  Did you know the British sing "Away in a Manger" to an entirely different tune?  Of course they do.  She was nervous but you sure couldn't tell as she belted it out, her smiley face beaming above her tiny shepherd costume.  I tried to get it all on video but got a little misty watching and it was tricky to juggle Baby Sister on my hip, too so she may have to do an encore tonight.  Big Brothers were treated to her dress rehearsal in school yesterday.  Biggest Brother said he was so proud of her that he cried.  (When I asked him for more details - knowing full well we've poured lots of sentimental happy tear genes into our smalls - he said, "Well. Only a little bit.  I was at school.").

Hearing 60 dear British children tell the story of Jesus' birth is about the sweetest way I can think to spend a morning.  So you can understand why I was eager to bring the Christmas spirit to our new home today.  That is, after I got this deliciousness inside. She sat on our front step for a bit waving to cars, cabs and buses.  Surely if she'd known a project involving white feather boas awaited she would have hustled right in.


Friday, November 25, 2011

What a Turkey

Everyone has been very dear to ask whether we were able to find all the needed ingredients for our first Thanksgiving abroad.  I was admittedly a bit smug in my response because we found Whole Foods in Kensington would deliver an entire dinner to our flat! Fantastic.  Days of thawing, brining, and more advanced cooking in Celsius than we were ready to tackle could be swiped off the calendar as easily as they'd run our VISA card.  I was so busy proselytizing about such luxuries to every American I knew that I neglected to read the details of the brochure.  

So while the Mister walked the kids to school, Baby Sister and I whipped up desserts.  Then the 3 of us (strange to have 2 big people to 1 small) went to St. Paul's Cathedral for an amazing Thanksgiving service. It was inspiring to sing "America the Beautiful" with thousands of Americans so far from home.   (I held Baby Sister's face up to mine, hoping to see glimmers of recognition of a familiar tune only to realize she'd decided to take a nap.)  

Later, with the big kids gathered from school, we awaited the dinner delivery.  And waited some more while we put off countless requests for snacks.  Then after frantic emailing and phone calls, our lovely dinner arrived 45 minutes late but in a gloriously stuffed box filled with oodles of side dishes that would nicely complement the pie, brownies, muffins, and chocolate lollies we were taking to our friends' after dinner.  This bounty included a 6-7 kilogram turkey.  Which needed to be baked for 4 hours.  Or so.

A bit of angst ensued.  We made a quick sannie dinner, piled desserts, smalls and pilgrim hats into a cab and found humor over more pie and wine with a girlfriend I've known for about 30 years.  Good cheer filled her flat along with family and friends.  The china went back to the sideboard* for a few days and I left the tablecloth and centrepiece in place.  Dinner will be served on Saturday.  We will now quit looking down our noses at our friends who planned to do that all along.  Thanksgiving continues again on Tuesday when the ladies are coming for coffee.  THEN I will let Brothers decorate for Christmas.  

Before all that though, this afternoon will find Baby Sister and me in Big Sister's classroom wearing pilgrim hats, reading Thanksgiving books, passing around a tray of pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and gently explaining to 30 sweet British children that it all began when folks left this lovely island.  

*and about that sideboard.  I know JUST what you're thinking:  "She is so grown up."  I KNOW.  Pinch me.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

One is Silver and the Other Gold

I'm throwing a Thanksgiving Coffee.  Can you come? My mother used to (still does) have coffees for friends and neighbor ladies.  I think many of them were around holidays like Valentine's and maybe even St. Patrick's Day.  Maybe that's why I love a theme and always volunteer to host playgroups and throw parties around something special.  It makes the decorating, tablescape, food, and favors so much more fun.

In La Grange, I had a Thanksgiving coffee to tell my new friends there just how grateful I was for them.  I remember a tearful exchange with my "mentor mom" who'd been assigned to us when we arrived at school. I could always count on her (also mother of 4).  She taught me how to dress the children for school when they would play outside in 10 degrees F and was my personal shopper when I was housebound solo with an infant and 3 children with H1N1.  Friends deserve a bounty of pumpkin muffins, ham biscuits, and an endless vat of coffee.  How often to you have a chance to treat a houseful of your girlfriends, count your blessings, and form new friendships along the way?

Some of my friendships here are still in their infancy. The coffee is a selfish exercise on my part to get to know the invitees better.  Remember going home with friends in college?  Seeing their hometown, bedroom, family and friends was a quick shortcut to understanding them.  Thus the coffee.  We also threw ourselves a cocktail party in La Grange for the same reason.  And who isn't up for a few more friends?

For the wanderers out there - you may relate:  I always feel like finding new girlfriends where you've landed is much akin to dating.  If that is so, I'm already London's biggest floozy -  smiling and waving and inviting most everyone I can.  Much like overtipping, I figure the worst that can happen is that I will continue the stereotype of Americans being outgoing and generous.  Guilty.  Anyway, the boys found it very funny that I've invited some whose names I don't even know ("Waffle Mom" (we made waffles together at the Pumpkin Festival at school and I swear knew her name last term...), "Twins' Mom" and "New Spanish Mom - Big Brother's class") were actual names on my invitation list.  Rest assured that was not how I addressed their envelopes.  They were blank.  And my ribbon topped invitations are new to my new friends here - hooray!

I'm already excited about the morning and some of the moms said it gave them reason to research Thanksgiving.  (Maybe they can do the Thanksgiving lesson in Big Sister's Reception class!) It will be lovely to have everyone here as we are usually immersed in Parent Committee Meetings* and managing not to get plowed down by double decker buses while getting small people, rucksacks, and PE kits (see what fun British terms you are learning just by logging on?!) to their appointed places on time.

Today I remembered how grown up I felt at my parties in La Grange serving coffee and cider from two 40-cup West Bend percolators!  That they were on an actual sideboard nearly put me over the top. I'm simple.  I didn't envision needing the percolators here (neither the antique trunk that was our toy box - sniff!), so they sit in storage in IL undoubtedly not missing me as much as I miss them.  Meanwhile I noodle through their UK equivalent (an exercise for which you must free your mind of US terms and start to think like a Brit.  If you have to know, it is "coffee urn" and of course, don't look for cup capacity as it will be in litres instead.  Oh the time I'm saving you for future research!)

Some things, like driving a station wagon, keeping crayons in my purse, and owning not just one but two party-sized percolators make me feel even a tiny bit older than my average daily sensibility of approximately 8 years old.  I don't think, tho that anyone outgrows the nervous anticipation around a party.  I hope everyone comes, that the flat is filled with laughter and cheer, and mostly, that I don't throw a Mary Tyler Moore party!

*Those committee meetings deserve a whole 'nother blog entry or maybe better yet, an SNL skit.  They are a bit like a UN gathering.  Especially those with Ahmadinejad at the podium.  Maybe if we had those cool translation headsets ours might be slightly less contentious.  At a recent meeting I suggested (Catholic school and all where the children pray every few minutes or so) that we open with a prayer. Peace reigned.  Until the subject of the disco ball-less disco came up...

Anyway, can you come to the coffee?  It would justify my owning a UK percolator or two.  I mean coffee urns.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Proper Tea For Two

Make that thirteen.  But that's when you include Big Sister's siblings, two of whom were nice enough to help serve the multitude of little girls lunch, eat their own lunch in the kitchen, make a playlist and be the DJ, meet families at the door and direct them upstairs, and help translate American English for the guests.  One brother wanted to put cones out around his DJ booth, wear a whistle, and actually did wear a police/security badge.  They love a job -- I am grateful they were so helpful!

The tea was lovely and sweet in every way.  I told the girls to imagine they were having tea in a candy shop as there were jars and dishes filled with lots of sweets.  I confess to buying 100 candy necklaces and more gumballs than remotely reasonable.  This bounty was our first issue needing translation.  The British say "sweets" for candy.  When Big Sister told one of her first guests to "come see all the candy" it was met with a blank stare until we translated.  Also when I offered them "jelly sandwiches" until Biggest Brother told me that was akin to offering them Jello sandwiches (! who knew?) which explains the great relief on their little faces when it was discovered there was a tray of strawberry jam sannies.

The girls looked lovely and were dear little guests - sparkly, pink, and fluffy!  We are used to seeing them in blue polo shirts and navy sweatsuits (oh, the horrors Big Sister endures to attend her most lovely school!) so seeing them in their tiny feminine finest was a gift in itself!  Big Sister had a great time being hostess to her new friends and Baby Sister must have felt so fancy to be part of all the fanfare.

The girls were ready early and apologies for the poor photo, but I loved that they were peeping out the mail slot waiting their company.  It was a grand time of glitter stencils, decorating cookies, learning the "I'm a Little Tea Pot" song and dance, passing a stuffed tea pot (hot potato style), lunch, cake and gifts!  So grand that we skipped the Lord Mayor's fireworks that night.  But never fear - the celebrating goes on -- we're keeping the pink bunting (so British!) up until Friday when Big Sister actually turns 5 (and gets to wear her own clothes instead of a uniform to school -- what excitement!!!) and then our decor will turn to Thanksgiving...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Monkey Business

Baby Sister keeps reminding us how funny 2 can be. And how much of their lives are phases.  Apparently a climbing one has just dawned.  Before she put pajamas back on* and began to scale our back door, she'd done done a full body pull up on the railing in our building's lift.  And yesterday she kept trying to hang from the overhead strap on the bus like a little monkey at the zoo.  She must have enviable upper body strength.

*There's another phase:  changing clothes all day long.   No complaints there - that one says to me "I can dress myself" which is amazing, laudable, and efficient!  It also means that many days she wears shoes that don't match.  

Another phase is to announce that someone is "NOT in charge."  That one is less funny, but like all of them, we know it won't last too terribly long.

Biggest Brother would never have dreamed of pulling this type of trick, which probably explains why he laughs the loudest at her.  Baby Number 4 and not only did I let her do it, but I got the pix to prove it. Further evidence that there really is something to that birth order thing.  If for no other reason than your parents have figured out what is funny.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Frogs Like To Kiss

Big Sister will only be 4 for a few more days.  Four is such a wonderful age and it has gone so quickly - what with moving twice, longing for her pink room, enduring my homeschooling, and becoming a little British girl and all.  

Today she told me she couldn't "make an heyach" with her hands and arms like she could other letters.  (Think YMCA arm motions).  She has already forgotten how we pronounce "h."  Her birthday list includes a Barbie, "girly books," and a keychain.  This list was much too short for Brothers so they're already conspiring to give her things they know she'd like but doesn't think to ask for -- especially pink LEGOs.  

Saturday will find her celebrating with lots small ladies from Reception at a tea party at our flat.  It is her first real party with friends.  Days ahead of her party, our home hasn't seen so much pink since she was born and mountains of pink gifts arrived daily.  It is a delight.  So is she. Also that she chose a frog cookie cutter for the tea because, as she explained, "frogs like to kiss!"  That made us all laugh, but somehow I think a table full of her tiny, fancy friends will completely understand and agree.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Clean Heart and A Cheerful Spirit

I'm always noodling through what we will bring back from this experience to the States.  It is a given that much of it will be in home decor.  No one who visits our future homes will have to be told that we lived in London.  Our flat has a fair amount British icons and treasures collected along Portobello Road, and that's just 8 months in and long before the Queen's Jubilee next summer.

Undoubtedly the children will pick up British words, sayings, and accents.  I already hear myself asking people, "Y'aright?" but haven't quite caught onto "Hiya!"  I'm very much hoping the amazing style sense of the French moms at school will rub off on me.  Meanwhile, we've decided the best souvenir would be to adopt the motto of The Portman Estate (a huge Marylebone landowner since the 16th century):   "A Clean Heart and A Cheerful Spirit."  We don't even have to wait to repatriate.  We'll start now.

And it is indeed already the season for cheer in London.  We were treated to an abundance of it on our bus ride home from school as all of Oxford Street is now glittering with Christmas lights, baubles, and decorated windows.
We needed that cheer, too because moments after enjoying that lovely view, Big Brother had an upset stomach on the bus. (Dear 274 Driver:  Again, I am so, so sorry and greatly appreciate how kind you were to all of us!  Also grateful that we happened to be the only ones on the bus.  So happy, too that he seems fine now and even found some humor in the whole episode.)  My apologies that only a few days into blogging and I've already discussed a bodily function.

Anyway, there's a renewed focus here on clean hearts, cheerful spirits (and vigorous hand washing, too).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Characters All Around Me

Our bit of London is an interesting kaleidoscope of characters.  From the travelers dragging luggage along Bayswater, the inebriated at Marble Arch, the hookah smokers on Edgware, and the wealthy all throughout Marylebone, they are all fascinating.  I am always casting an independent film in my head.  Given that this is my first experience in urban living, it is hard to say if the tableau of people is indicative of London in particular, or city life in general.  I love it.
I have several favorite types just crying out to be in a movie.  One set is the parents and children walking to a very high end boys' private school on our walk to our sweet, tiny, Catholic (tuition free) primary.  That school is so fancy that a future monarch and his brother attended its other campus.  The children are gloriously, Britishly preppy.  They are supremely disheveled in the morning and adorably kitted out in cricket gear on my favorite afternoons.  My mind wanders to what their homes look like and what their futures hold.  I assume these are boys of great privilege learning together.  Maybe theirs are friendships that will continue in laudable universities and as they go on to lead the world in business, government, and the arts.  I hope they are learning about those much different than themselves, too.  One of our favorite "neighbors" along our walk to school is the staff member who greets the boys every day.  If his attitude is any indication of the spirit being delivered to those boys, I am sure they are well tended to.  
Then there are those I call the“professionally thin.”Having never seen anyone of acclaim, (although I was once just minutes and steps away from spotting Hugh Grant at Waitrose.  Or so I was told by another“mum" at the school gate.  Argh.) the professionally thin are as close as I've come to the famous.  (I also really think I saw the Queen in the back of a car near Wellington Arch but I was on a bus going in another direction and can't be sure.)  Anyway, these unimaginably rail thin beauties always catch my eye and make me curious about their lives.  Have you seen those shows profiling modeling agencies?  They detail models traipsing around big cities for casting calls and photo shoots.  These are the types of women I see lots.  They are usually supremely tall made even taller by tottering in sky high shoes, fashionably messy, and have amazing hair.  Maybe one could come home with me and help edit my closet.  I'm always hoping they'll pause just long enough at a zebra crossing to toss me a quick life changing makeup tip or hairstyle idea or face product recommendation.  I'm open.  I watch them and ignore just how different I must look.  
My toddler and I could be undercover spies of everyday people.  In a way we already are although my partner is so deep as to be completely unaware of her assignment.  We have the best cover.  No one really sees us unless she's doing something particularly noisy or adorable or if I've unwittingly dressed her in something unusual to Europeans.  But following folks will really be the job of my movie camera man.  My favorite films are ones whose scripts must read like a Venn Diagram.  Just as you understand a bit of one character's life and follow them walking, you inevitably see a new character and literally pick up on their path. I love the concept and illustration of overlapping and intersecting lives.
In all honesty, though there are way too many characters to cast just in my regular goings on in my little corner of London.  There's the woman who rides her bike extremely fast (and even worse, downhill!) with a teeny dog (which means possessing very short little stumpy legs) on a leash running hurriedly right alongside.  When I see them I can't help but to stare because the sight almost defies logic, but I have to turn away, halfway expecting to hear the tragic yelping of poochie v. bike tires and chain.  Then there is the woman I have seen on more than one occasion in a short trench coat with what I believe is nothing underneath.  She looked sheepish the first time and I envisioned a funny story about being her locked out, or her dry cleaners not being opened as early as she'd hoped, or a catastrophic date.  I was sure that behind her half smile there was a hysterical story brewing that she'd share with her girlfriends over drinks.  It would be a story so good her friends would inevitably retell it to other friends in tears of laughter.  Then I saw her again just days later dressed exactly the same - lapels gathered in one hand around her neck and bare legs jutting out of the same chicly mini trench as before.  Now I'm left to wonder if that's just how she strolls in the early hours.  Hard to say.  My new neighbors.  Characters all.
*And one more thing about Venn Diagrams:  They will always remind me of one my oldest made for school a few years ago about his brother and himself.  In the separate circles were things like “likes chocolate” and “likes vanilla” and “likes UPS” and “likes FedEx” and in the crossover in the middle was “likes to snuggle together at night.”

Dear Virgin Atlantic

I want to commend two Virgin Atlantic employees for wonderful and heartfelt customer service that made a daunting task possible for me. The Saturday before last, I flew from London (October 22, VS021 from Heathrow to Washington Dulles) with my four children (ages 9, 7, 4, and 2) for a week’s holiday in the US. A last minute business trip meant my husband would already be Stateside and would meet us there. Our children are seasoned and happy travelers and we packed plenty of favorite and surprise books, games, and snacks to keep everyone entertained. But I was still a bit nervous about how we would all fare crossing the Atlantic encapsulated with lots of strangers. As added insurance, I’d asked for thoughts and prayers (novenas even!) from friends, family, and our parish priest.

Those well wishes and prayers were certainly answered by your crew. Thanks entirely to the kindness and service of Clare Murphy (FSM) and Yvonne (Flight Attendant just back from maternity leave), the flight was not only possible, but we were kept happy and comfortable and felt genuinely cared for despite being troublesome passengers. Clare and Yvonne will probably tell you that they were just doing their jobs and in that way, I know they’re right -- I suspect the true warmth with which they tended us is very much a part of how they treat all passengers. That we were the beneficiaries of being on their flight was our good fortune and I want them to know how much they helped me.

Without a car since moving to London last spring, our youngest child has enjoyed a life without car seat restraints as we mostly walk and ride buses in the city. At take off, she protested her seat belt in ear splitting, face melting, mortifying, heartbreaking, and maddening tantrums. We endured this with kind help from both Yvonne and Clare. It is notable that they asked me immediately what was distressing this small person instead of just trying to shush her, and actively tried to make her more comfortable. Clare suggested Yvonne stay close to us and help as needed as long as possible.

Once airborne, seat belt light off, a parade of entertainment, snacks, and naps followed for a happy 8 hours or so. B
oth women continued to visit and check on us throughout the flight and we were always delighted by their chats, especially those related to British football! The boys if anything, suffered from benign neglect while the girls and I snuggled in 2 seats. We were all content.

Then it was time to buckle the youngest again for our descent. She protested. Loudly. First Class passengers may have had their cocktail glasses shatter. It was like something out of a really bad movie. Only in the movie, the mom would be only comically rumpled or Adam Sandler would be the dad and it would be funny. This was all too real for an entire packed flight who had to sit with us and a crew who had lots to do. The descent began to hurt my 7 year old's ears and he started to cry. Maybe the hours of being good caught up to my 4 year old or it was just infectious, but she, too began to cry. And what is a mother to do, strapped in a seat out of reach of three crying babies? It’s true. I am not too proud to say that I started to cry, too. What a complete mess we were. Only my 9 year old managed to keep it together and I’m fairly sure he was just inking it all for notes for a future therapist.

At that very moment, Clare appeared with genuine concern written all over her face. (Maybe she was actually looking for a hidden camera hoping this was a spoof!) She knelt next to my youngest and stroked her little feet, talking in soothing tones. Then as if she were waving a wand, she directed us to rearrange our seating so I could be right next to the baby. Yvonne came too, helping with everyone. I managed to find one remaining lint covered piece of gum in my pocket to help my son's ears and my daughter began to sniff instead of sob. Within seconds, all was well and without a 2 year old screaming, I think I heard a collective sigh of relief from the entire Economy section. I’m sure if they’d been allowed to stand or didn’t fear breaking the now blissful silence, they would have given Clare and Yvonne a standing ovation.

And here I should say that credit too goes to the countless nice passengers who despite suffering through screaming, somehow instead of shooting us dirty looks, were extremely kind to me and complemented the children for being good travelers. As we left the plane I thanked Clare and told her if I tried to say just how much she and Yvonne had done for me that I would simply stand there and weep. I think there is something about parents in general, and maybe mothers in particular, that makes them look out for families with children. I am so grateful to 2 mothers on your team who mothered my clan in our travels.

When I was working I used to keep “atta boy” notes like this in a file to flip through on days when the complaints seemed to outnumber the praise. I hope this letter will make its way to both Clare and Yvonne as well as their personnel files on the odd chance they ever need reminding of their value to customers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Zero Hour 8 a.m.

Just like Elton John's Rocket Man, we'll be high as a kite by morning, and are fairly certain there will be differences when we land.  Will the children still sound British on American soil?  Will we have a friendly Customs agent welcome us home?  Will we feel at home in Virginia or when we return to London?  Will a 2 year old who hasn't been in a car seat in nearly 6 months submit to a 5-point harness?

Before I can even begin to ponder all that, the prospect of an international flight with 4 small children and no accompanying husband (he's already Stateside for business) looms.  The combination of no other responsible adult and an early flight time also makes a cocktail seem wildly inappropriate.  And on that note, I'm sad Southwest has changed their drink coupon policy.  It was always a hoot for my husband to "treat" me to a drink just after take off.  We're simple like that.

The children are usually spectacular travellers (is even typing that is risking something...?) and we've tested their limits on trips to the Grand Canyon and possibly the world's longest drives to South Carolina and North Dakota (which were different trips but they seem equally endless upon reflection).  But still.  It is a long time to be encapsulated with lots of strangers, and at this moment, seems a bit like AP parenting.

This morning my confidence was shaken by how difficult it was for us just to leave the flat for school - a full 35 minutes after a car will pick us up tomorrow for the airport.  There was nudity where there should have been uniforms, squabbling when there should have been peace, and tears when there should have been cheers for the last day of school before half term break.  But luggage is packed, surprises tucked into backpacks, comfy travel wear set aside, and a pizza party and early bedtimes planned for this evening.

Reunions are treasured times and give us the opportunity to reflect on ourselves as much as others.  In that way, I know this will be as much of a reunion with America (not to mention Target, JCrew, and as much Mexican food and drink as I can manage) as it is with family and friends. And I think it's going to be be a long, long time...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day One. New Beginnings.

Writing a love letter from abroad and sending myself a bit of a journal.  Why "And Now We Are Six"?    I borrowed most of the words from the title of a poetry collection of A. A. Milne's.  For nearly ten years our Christmas cards would report that we'd had a baby or were expecting a baby in alternating years.  This year's card didn't say that, though.  In fact, we didn't even send cards year because we were in the process of moving to London, but if we'd said anything else of note this year it would have been...and now we are six. After a decade of building our family, we have blessedly come to be the amazingly, sweetly symmetrical family identical to mine as a child:  2 boys, 2 girls, and the 2 of us. And Now We Are Six.  It says to me: "Whew. The thrilling, heartbreaking, and stunning part of building our team is complete.  Hand in hand, we have graduated to another stage in our lives.  Now is the time to set sail and explore together. And the adventures have just begun."